Synopsis – Two strangers’ lives become inextricably bound together after a devastating plane crash.
My Take – For anyone growing up in the 1980s or 90s, watching an action blockbuster starring the former Austrian bodybuilder turned movie star Arnold Schwarzennegger on the big screen would guarantee a good time. Sure, most of the films he starred in would involve him waving around a variety of arsenal that he would could equip to take down a third world nation bad guys while making wisecracks, but somewhere in between he went on to star in unforgettable classics like Total Recall, Predator and the 1st two Terminator films, which warranted him a luxury earned by a handful of actors which ensured adoration whenever they grace silver screen, no matter in what form. After leaving the film business to pursue a political career one would expect him to fade in to obscurity and be remembered with a nostalgic glow. However, ever since leaving the Governor’s Mansion of California in 2011, the Austrian stud has struggled to replicate the consistent box-office success that, back in his glory days, made him one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. In strictly commercial terms, his post-political films have ranged from domestic disappointments to outright failures, many of them (including his return to his iconic role in the flop Terminator Genisys) only managing to recoup their budget thanks to the increasingly dependable overseas market. Significantly, the most successful of these films – the Expendables sequels – only feature him as part of an ensemble cast and are consciously designed as a nostalgic throwback to the muscle bound violent action films of the 1980s that made his career possible in the first place. However since the release of 2015s Maggie, an unconventional zombie film where he played the father of an infected child, it seemed Arnold has chosen his age & decreased box office stand to reinvented himself as character actor with eyes on an Oscar nomination, well if Stallone can get one why not him, right? Here, bearded and unkempt, with wrinkles on his face made all the more pronounced by the stiffness of past plastic surgery, humanizes him in a way that would have been unthinkable in his heyday while also providing evidence of Schwarzenegger’s surprising growth as an actor. Except it or not, it’s nice to see him move on to emotional dramas than his now pondering usual action flicks. However, the pure grinding drama feels like a far stretch, and it doesn’t have any thriller aspect like the previous mentioned Maggie and while the film is presentable, there are quite some bumps on the way.
Based upon the real-life Überlingen mid-air collision, and the subsequent murder of Danish air traffic controller Peter Nielsen at Skyguide by Russian architect Vitaly Kaloyev, who held Nielsen responsible for the deaths of his wife and two children in the disaster, it’s sad to see that, despite manifest commitment on the part of its leads, director Elliott Lester & writer Javier Gullón misuse their efforts by exploiting the real-life tragedy for a shallow, supercilious sentiment without saying anything of substance on the feelings and experiences involved. The film feels more manipulative than it does sympathetic, topped off with an almost constant droning, moaning music score and very strange touches like a bizarre, busy wardrobe for Schwarzenegger. Scene after scene consists of the actors trying to convey their inner anguish, with the director unable to do anything but remain on the surface. It is not a terrible film by any means, it’s lumbering yet not without its compelling moments. The story follows Roman Melnyk (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a successful Ukrainian immigrant turned construction manager, who is keenly awaiting the arrival of his wife and pregnant daughter, who are flying in to Ohio from Kiev. However, when he reaches the airport, with flowers in his hand to greet his family, he is told by a member of the airline that there has been a terrible accident–a collision at high altitude has caused the death of everyone on board both planes, including his. The loss is devastating, but for air traffic controller Jacob “Jake” Bonaos (Scoot McNairy)–who in a moment of distraction was unable to stop the accident, finds his own world collapsing around him, brought on by not only an angry public. Overcome with guilt as his own family which includes his wife Christina (Maggie Grace) and his young son are safe on ground, Jake finds it difficult to cope as the investigation wears on. As the two men deal in separate ways with the tragedy, they themselves head for a collision of their own as Roman finds no solace in the aftermath of a mistake no one takes the blame for. It seems their lives were destined to intersect once more, and a tale of guilt and consequence soon begins to unravel. The premise of the film is interesting, especially when we see the similarities in the emotions both experience throughout the film. The film is arranged in a succession of parallel montages detailing how each man’s life is affected by the tragedy: Jake’s personal and professional life get derailed as he takes most of the blame for the victims’ deaths and falls into a guilt-induced depression that estranges him from his wife and son, while Roman grows more and more obsessed with finding someone to blame for his loss and getting them to apologize. Because of the story’s narrative structure and loose basis in fact, we know it’s only a matter of time until their paths collide; the film’s success or failure hinges on the way it outlines the desires, emotions and decisions building up to that collision and their effect on its outcome. To get such a process right is more than a matter of simply comparing each man’s pain and contrasting their respective methods for dealing with it. It means cutting through what the characters are obviously doing, saying and feeling to dig out hidden points of convergence and divergence that give their arcs meaning. Even though, the progression of both characters are great, the whole story is rather too straightforward, resulting in a stagnant feel and constant predictability as the pain oozes through.
The film has the difficult task of handling both perspectives from the aftermath (hence the title) of a life shattering disaster. For the majority of its running time, the film idly toggles back and forth between snapshots of Roman vaguely processing his trauma and Jake running away from his haters by getting out of Dodge to work as a travel agent under an assumed name. The film does a good job at never making feel like an antagonist Jake while also not forgetting the weight of what he was partially responsible for. It gives you enough reasons to like and care about this man that when the event does occur, you feel as bad for him as you do for the victims of the accident. That is no easy feat either, the writing could have gone way overboard at making his character too sympathetic that it risked belittling the other side. Luckily it never fell into that trap. But the film itself only inspires contempt, sloppily bum-rushing in its final stretches to finally converge its main characters and posit their hurt as the grist for a contrived game of revenge-fueled tag that doesn’t end. I do have a gripe or two with the editing of the film, while not bad and for the most part is well done. There are times where it had difficulties conveying how much time was passing or supposed to be passing. For the first two acts of the film I wasn’t entirely sure how many hours, days, weeks, or possibly even months were being displayed until it reached a point where it cut to a full later after the crash. This is a revenge film only in its loosest definition, as Schwarzenegger’s character Roman pursues an apology for his loss from anyone connected with the disaster. However the film‘s biggest struggle lies in its pacing, which slowly loses steam over the course of a largely quiet second act. What should be a slow burn to the inevitable encounter between our leads is plagued by dramatic plateaus and scenes that linger just a bit too long. Javier Gullón‘s is a fine screenwriter, but the spark that helped maintain the energy is his other features doesn’t really exist here. The moodiness is overwhelming, and the finale more or less fizzles out as a result. Every emotion the characters are meant to feel, every idea Lester regards as important, is signaled to the audience like flashing neon sign. If a character is about to receive terrible news, a slow-motion counter-shot of a passerby’s traumatized face with ominous effects in the back of the soundtrack are here to make that clear. Both Schwarzenegger and McNairy are very good, each providing a sense of great personal impact to both sides of the story. There is something about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s work here that feels more sincere, proving himself to be an underrated dramatic actor last year, Arnie doubles down here with easily the weightiest role of his entire career, a superb turn opposite the equally superb – though perhaps less well-utilized – Scoot McNairy, better known for his dramatic work than his co-star, holds his own as well and mostly over powers scenes with some excellent acting. In a supporting role, Maggie Grace is also excellent, seriously why isn’t she seem around much, especially now that the Taken series is in the ground? Hannah Ware, Martin Donovan & Kevin Zegers are alright in small roles. On the whole, ‘Aftermath’ is undermined by its flawed script, pacing and a needless finale despite powerful turns from Schwarzenegger and McNairy.
Directed – Elliott Lester
Rated – R
Run Time – 94 minutes